Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review - "A Pair of Blue Eyes" (or "Victorian Girls Want Sex") by Thomas Hardy

I'm sorry I can't cut this behind a link - unlike lj, blogspot has some complicated html happening.

A Pair of Blue Eyes or Victorian Girls Want Sex
By Thomas Hardy

This book took me a week to get through and I shouted and laughed and hurrah'd and ranted at Hardy's sheer audacity to publicly be such a bastard to his characters.

A Pair of Blue Eyes follows the generic Hardy tragi-romance mould whereby a set of pure, intellectual and personally aspiring young men are emotionally crippled by the thoughtlessness of a fickle woman.

The story follows the heroine, Elfride (to whom the eponymous ‘blue eyes’ refer), as she navigates all the pitfalls of love and courtship that any attractive lass from the English countryside might be expected to charter. Secretly, of course, Hardy is channelling all the positives (and probably negatives) of his early relationship with Emma Gifford (before he locked her in the attic) and Elfride resonates a range of the very characteristics loved and despised in his most famous later female protagonists.

The novel opens with Elfride presented as a curious, na├»ve creature who is as delicate as any swooning 18th century romantic heroine. After a particularly exhausting round of chess (where her tender female brain is quite taxed) she retires to her room and it is pronounced by the doctor that “on no account whatever was she to play chess ever again”. She is susceptible to guilt also and turns uncharacteristically and briefly to brandy in a moment of emotional overwraughtedness.

Yet, as the novel progresses, Efride shows she has far more vim than most of her male counterparts give her credit for – she is both impulsive (though this is often to her detriment), resourceful and passionate. She admits the first dawnings of sexual feeling for one the village’s only cultured suitors, Mr Stephen Smith – a London man who visits their village on business with her father, the vicar. Elfride wastes no time feeling overwhelmed with the simultaneous emotions of both guilt and lust:

STEPHEN: Elfride, I’m too poor for you, and by you I mean your father.
ELFRIDE: yes that is a bit of a problem.
STEPHEN: I really haven’t any money…
ELFRIDE: yes I know – not a good match for me at all.
STEPHEN: and I haven’t told you my darkest secret yet…
ELFRIDE: I get the picture – let’s run off and get married already.
STEPHEN: why don’t you wait here for me while I make my fortune in India first?
ELFRIDE: so we won’t be having sex then?

Watching Elfride unwittingly destroy her bevy of suitors doesn’t leave one as cold and unsympathetic as reading the fate of Hardy’s later heroine Bathsheba, who gets her comeuppance in the hands of the adulterous Sergeant Troy. Elfride is driven by emotional stimulation and understands her actions and reactions only within a strictly prescribed social code of manners that isn’t always adhered to by its participants. Hardy is clearly describing a lass who has been left quite uneducated about the realities of social behaviour and responsibility and the ending to her tale, though sudden, is both at once outrageous and satisfying.

Elfride takes risks in ways that shock her suitors (and indeed, the Victorian audiences of the day) – and this exploration of her sexual awakening, and the effect it has on the world around her, does wallow somewhat in Victorian sensibility. However, beneath this, contemporary readers can note a celebration of her femininity and Hardy has little of the soured bitterness he implies of his more famous heroines. Elfride is just a nineteen year old girl, after all – she fishes for compliments, is a sucker for a bit of chauvinistic misogyny and makes stupid, impulsive decisions (which Hardy’s voice blames on her female vanity) that often put her life in danger:

ELFRIDE: Watch me walk around this incredibly dangerous cliff face/mountain ridge/church parapet so that I might impress you, pretty boy, and win your lovin’.
SUITOR DU JOUR: I’m not sure we can make love when you’re dead, not legally anyway, so why don’t we go back down and read a bit of Plato?
ELFRIDE: Plato’s a bore – watch how well I walk around on this very high ledge *slips*
SUITOR DU JOUR: *saves* I think I love you for this moment of stupidity.
ELFRIDE: want to sex me?

Throughout the novel the men she is enamoured by are of two moulds. Either they are wet boys who froth romance from every pore and wade through the shallows of emotion, flattering and winning the heroine with an inflamed fervour for sex —

YOUNG MAN: *walking in the countryside* let’s just have a little sit down on this seat for a minute
ELFRIDE: oh look at the time –shouldn’t we be getting back?
YOUNG MAN: you have such beautiful eyes, Elfride
ELFRIDE: I’m not entirely sure it’s proper that we’re sitting alone and so cosily like this…
YOUNG MAN: And you have such stirring lips.
ELFRIDE: You go too far, sir.
YOUNG MAN: *snogs her*
ELFRIDE: Can we try that again?

— or they are older, reclusive, intellectual types who claim the ‘cruel to be kind’ courtship model, mocking and insulting the heroine till she’s left in a state of subjugated adoration.

ELFRIDE: Tell me what you like about me – do you love me for my hair?
DEEP INTELLECTUAL TYPE: Don’t be ridiculous, it’s mousy and quite unfashionable.
ELFRIDE: Do you love me for my fair complexion?
DEEP INTELLECTUAL TYPE: Be quiet, you brown canker, I’m trying to remember my Latin conjugations.
ELFRIDE: Do you love me for my eyes. Some say they are my best feature. Didn’t you notice that they are even the title of this book?
DEEP INTELLECTUAL TYPE: I find you vapid and uninspiring. And a little bit stupid.
ELFRIDE: do you want to snog me?
DEEP INTELLECTUAL TYPE: I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

In both cases, of course, Hardy insists the men are absolute pictures of virtue and sexual innocence – inspired only to lust by the heroine’s unwitting fabulousness. Prior to meeting Elfride, the men have no past, no indiscretions, no lusts (but for what the heroine inspires in them) and their characters are only marred by a violent jealousy for Elfride’s increasingly chequered past.

This past literally stalks around the background of this novel as a real life haunting spectre – the hovering and veiled shape of an angry widow which cuts a ghostly and demonic domestic figure. This plot device – a manifestation perhaps of Elfrides guilt (or lack of guilt?) – seems frequently out of place amid the foreground of vapid sensibility and frothy teen love:

DEEP INTELLECUTAL TYPE: *kisses her* have you ever done this before?
ELFRIDE: um *changes topic* have you ever done this before *snogs him back*
DEEP INTELLECTUAL TYPE: you know what I love about you – your honesty and your innocence.
SPECTRE OF HER PAST: I curse you to an eternity of unhappiness with my veiled glare of rage.
DEEP INTELLECTUAL TYPE: wha—?
ELFRIDE: do you want to see what’s under my corset?

And yet this character does manage to lend a sense of gothic darkness and justified danger to Elfride’s perhaps wonton fickleness.

But don’t get me wrong, for all my criticism I adored this novel. I devoured it vigorously, my pen spouting opinions in the margins of every page. Hardy is clearly new to this – the book hasn’t the considered plot development of Jude or Tess and his narrative devices and character descriptions sometimes ere on the idealistic penetrations of fanfiction-writing adolescents. However, he writes with wit and the plot veritably rollicks along, always surprising and always engaging. I love imagining the young Hardy (he was just over 30 when he wrote it) truly in love with his heroine and yet despairing at her shortcomings as he despaired about those of his wife.

This is a passionate work that sends both an unpleasant moral message about fickleness but also comments on the behaviour society expects of its women. If you’ve read Hardy before you will thrill at making comparisons to his better known characters and stories, and if you haven’t you will adore this simple romantic tragedy and really enjoy the feeling of outrage once you reach the end of the novel.

A corker read!

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